Things I Learned from How the Word is Passed – Part I

My skill doesn’t lie in reviewing books. Most of the books I read, however, do make me think. Many of them prompt me to question the way I’ve seen the world all my life. To my mind, that’s a sign of a great book.

I promised myself to lighten up on my reading in July. In a way, I did. I didn’t read as many books as I usually do in a month’s time. I didn’t lighten up on the content of what I read. The books I read in July were all “heavy” in topic and were not the kind of books you want to read while on vacation at the beach or in the mountains. At least, I don’t. Since I wasn’t going anywhere in July, these books suited me just fine.

Three of the books I read in July had to do with race. I read a book about the caste system in America, and I read a book about the Confederate monuments and how they’ve brought out the worst in some of us. (See my August 2, 2021 blog post, _2 Books about Racial Injustice.)

I read a book about how various venues present either an honest or a skewed image of the history of Black Americans and how many white Americans treated or interacted with them. All three books were thought-provoking to say the least.

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

What a book! I found myself taking copious notes, which slowed down my reading considerably. There were so many little gems of insight in the book, I couldn’t stop taking notes.

The author allotted individual chapters to how the story of slavery is told at Monticello Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Gorée Island.

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

Before starting to read the book, I didn’t know how it was organized. The way each chapter was written about how the story of slavery is told at these various locations was powerful.

Today’s blog post will cover some of the things I learned about Monticello Plantation and the Whitney Plantation. I’ll save Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and New York City for my next blog post. Galveston Island, Goree Island, and the Epilogue will highlighted in my August 29, 2021 blog post.

Monticello Plantation

Tours available and displays at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, have changed dramatically since the house and grounds were opened for tours in 1923. In the beginning, the tour guides were Black men dressed as house slaves. They had to play a role. Today, tour guides do their own research, plan their remarks, and shadow other guides. There are several tours. One is about slavery on the plantation.

The author was struck by the fact that his tour guide referred to Jefferson’s slaves as “human beings.” To say Jefferson gifted his children and grandchildren with human beings doesn’t sound as palatable to our ears as saying he gifted them with slaves. The tour guide went out of his way to impress upon visitors that the slaves were human beings.

Although Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), he owned 400 or so slaves over his lifetime and even until death. He wrote eloquently about equality but, as a politician, could not speak out against slavery. When it got down to it, Jefferson didn’t consider his slaves as being human beings.

That leads us to the matter of his relationship with Sally Hemings. There is now a Sally Hemings Exhibit at Monticello. It has received a range of reactions from visitors. I suppose I knew this at one time but I’d forgotten that Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s wife, Martha, were half-sisters.

The Whitney Plantation

I hadn’t heard of the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, an hour west of New Orleans. It’s off the beaten path and not the kind of place one just happens upon and decides to visit. How is the story of slavery told (or, the word passed) at Whitney Plantation? In a rather shocking way.

There are 55 ceramic dark heads of black men on metal stakes.

In 1804, slaves in Haiti rebelled and defeated the French. They founded the first “Black-led republic in the world.” After this defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States (while Thomas Jefferson was president) for $15 million (= four cents per acre.) If not for the success of the revolt in Haiti, Napoleon probably wouldn’t have sold Louisiana to the United States!

In 1811, there was a slave uprising in Louisiana. Within 48 hours the armed (knives, machetes, muskets) rebellion was put down. It had been led by a mixed-race slave driver, Charles Deslondes. He was captured and to say they made an example of him would be a gross understatement. To quote from the book, “His hands were chopped off, the bones of his legs were shattered with bullets, and he was burned over a bale of hay. Many of the rebels were slaughtered on-site, their heads cut off and posted on stakes that lined the levee, a warning to other enslaved people that this was the price to pay for rebellion.”

How is it that I’ve never heard or read about this?

John Cummings purchased Whitney Plantation in 1999 and invested almost $10 million in it over the next 20 years. He donated it in 2019. It is now a non-profit.

There is high poverty in the area, which is 90% Black. The area is known as “Cancer Alley” due to the high incidence of cancer caused by the petroleum plants nearby. As quoted in the book, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II said of the area, “ʻThe same land that held people captive through slavery is now holding people captive through this environmental injustice and devastation.”

At Whitney, they utilize the late-1930s Federal Writers’ Project to help them tell the stories of slaves using their own words. According to the book, “The voices and stories of enslaved people are the foundation of how visitors experience the Whitney.” The author’s point about this was that through the Federal Writers’ Project, former slaves got to tell their stories in their own words. The author theorizes that by allowing such former slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to tell their stories, they consciously not only denied most average or common slaves (the ones who did not escape) the chance to tell their stories but also thereby made sure those slaves who did not escape would be looked down upon as not trying “hard enough.”

This is part of the insidiousness of white supremacy – to shine a light on the exceptions and place “blame on those who cannot, in the most brutal circumstances, attain superhuman heights. It does this instead of blaming the system, the people who built it, the people who maintained it.”

There is a Wall of Honor at Whitney with the names, country of origin, and date or year of slaves at the plantation.

Sexual violence is also addressed at Whitney. The rape of female slaves by white owners was about power. The owners knew the female slaves were powerless to refuse their advances. To really understand slavery, the sexual violence against women must be included in the equation.

The trade in slaves’ bodies is also addressed in this chapter. Medical schools like Harvard, and the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia often bought Black corpses on the black market for research.

Did you know all this about Whitney Plantation? I didn’t. And to think, I considered skipping that chapter because I’d never heard of that plantation!

Since my last blog post

I had a rollercoaster week with my novel. In studying point-of-view, I wrestled with which one to use. In my draft of the novel, I was apparently head jumping as I changed the story’s point-of-view character occasionally at scene or chapter breaks. I thought that was acceptable, but not when you’re writing in third person intimate.

I considered rewriting the book in first-person, but that would be a real challenge for several reasons. I spent hours studying various points-of-view and the rules governing each. I find these rules maddening. I took a walk to clear my brain overload because I thought some fresh air and exercise would result in mental clarity. Then, I took a second walk. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t. I went back through my manuscript scene-by-scene and determined how every scene could be changed into Sarah’s point-of-view or which parts could be modified to be part of the trial. I concluded third person intimate is still going to work best for this novel.

In the process of digging deeper into point-of-view, I stumbled upon several articles and YouTube videos about the Rashomon Effect. I realized I’m already using it in my trial scenes, and now I know what it’s called.

On Tuesday evening I watched and listened to an interview with author James Tate Hill. Mr. Hill lost his vision as a teen. In addition to his just-released memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, Mr.Hill has written a novel, Academy Gothic, which was awarded the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel. It always gives my writing a boost to hear an author speak or be interviewed. This interview was online and was hosted by Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC.

I’m slowly working my way through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional and Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon. I purchased it years ago and should have read it and taken it to heart then. I’m glad I rediscovered it. It’s really putting me through the paces and will help my writing on many levels. It has a 4.5 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon. I don’t know why it doesn’t have a 5 out of 5.

Until my next blog post

If you can get your hands on a copy of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith this week, please do so. I can’t imagine you will regret reading it.

I hope you have How the Word is Passed or another good book to read.


23 thoughts on “Things I Learned from How the Word is Passed – Part I

  1. Our road trips through the American South have yielded some fascinating blog insights about about race relations such as you discovered in your readings. We visited a few of these plantations around Baton Rouge and they each had their own unique story to tell. I detected no remorse for past slavery existence from the caretakers of these historic places then.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an important essay for the world, it has parallels to other colonial experiences such as here. In my view, Jefferson is an atypical politician, talks the talk but cannot walk.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s beyond sad that so many people have not learned from our history and moved on with a better understanding of how things were and how things should be. I’m especially appalled to learn how Angola Prison in Louisiana presents itself as a tourist destination and how New York City has managed to completely forget and hide it’s African American history. This book sheds a light on how we choose to tell our history or not tell our history. It is the telling of our history in such inauthentic ways that perpetuates the lack of remorse to which you referred. Thank you for reading my blog post and taking time to leave comments.

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  4. In school I was taught only the good things about Jefferson. When I toured Monticello years ago, I was only shown what a great inventor he was as he incorporated things into his home that were practical and ahead of their time. In that respect and in his talent for writing so eloquently about the desire of most American colonists to be a free and independent nation, I still stand in awe of him; however, the dichotomy of his private life versus his public life is typical of far too many politicians. Thank you for your comment, Paul.


  5. Very interesting and historically informative book about slavery in the US. I think that men like Thomas Jefferson and others cannot be judged for keeping slaves because they were men of their time and that was something acceptable at the time. Slavery was common and was in use for centuries by all civilisations, especially the black tribes in Africa which also kept slaves. Usually the ones defeated in battle became slaves of the victors. I cannot judge them with the standards of our age as it would be unrealistic and unfair as well as being useless and unnecessary. Recently much has been spoken of in the US about slavery and frankly I think it is a dead subject as it is just a part of history that reflected simply the practice of the time. I visited a few of the antebellum plantations in Louisiana in one of my trips there and was truly fascinated by the lifestyle of the original occupants. I also congratulate you on your arduous work on your novel. I am definitely looking forward to its publication date. One can see how careful you are and how detailed oriented you are in order to bring your message across in the best and clearest possible manners. That will definitely reflect in the novel. Take good care Janet and enjoy the rest of August and continue to post great articles, reward us with interesting books to read and keep us up to date on the progress of the work at hand. All the best,

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  6. Janet, your book list is important. We must find new ways of thinking and teaching US history that are honest about the experiences of Black Americans and Indian Nations. Thanks for your annotated bibliography.

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  7. I see what you’re saying, Francis, about Jefferson and others being a product of their time; however, how they ever thought slavery was right is beyond my comprehension. Throughout history there’s been slavery, but in the American colonies was the first case where one was a slave forever and on to his descendants. Before, slavery usually had a end time. I don’t understand it on any basis. I’ve come to have a better understanding over the last several years of the lasting effects that slavery in America still has on our society. Today’s bigotry is a product of slavery and the misrepresentation of history over the centuries. I’m afraid it will not be a dead issue in the U.S until all citizens come to grips with the injustice that still follows black people. Sadly, I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. On to other things…. Thank you for your encouraging words for my writing. I hope all my study and work will pay off in the long run so I can write the novel I want to write. August is flying by. I don’t want to think about summer being over soon. I’m not a fan of cool or cold weather. Enjoy the rest of August and those beautiful views of the sea. My best, Janet

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  8. Thank you Janet, yes, Summer is flying by, as is all time…I see by your research and by your studies that this will certainly lead you forward and onwards to writing a wonderful novel such as the one you want to write. I only wish I had the same determination, but I will get seriously on track before the end of Autumn. I also understand that you are much more aware of the situation with Blacks and Whites in the US, which is a very volatile one. Take good care and enjoy a lovely August weekend. I, as well as all your followers, look forward to your next post. All the best Janet,

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  9. Thank you, Francis. I’m trying to give myself some days off from my writing regimen, so I won’t burn out. I tend to inflict self-imposed rules and to-do lists on myself, much to my detriment. Last night I went off on a genealogy tangent — a hobby I haven’t taken time for in months. It’s been a nice day here. Hot and humid, but with Tropical Storm staying off the coast of North Carolina, I won’t complain about the heat. Our dog got a good report from the veterinarian this afternoon. He is recovering nicely from pneumonia. There’s always something, isn’t there? Enjoy the rest of your weekend. Janet

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  10. Thank you Janet. I hope NC is safe from hurricanes. We heard there was a Hurricane Henri threatening the US coast…I am glad to hear of your dog and yes, it is wise to disconnect for a while. All the best and enjoy your Sunday.

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  11. It looks like Hurricane Henri is heading for New York and New England. It’s been 30 years since New England took a direct hit from a hurricane. It’s predicted to be a category 1.

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  12. I found this post particularly interesting. It seems to me we don’t learn from our past and when and if we do we go at it like zealots and defeat the purpose. Is it really that hard to be thoughtful, kind and accepting?

    I’m currently doing a hard edit of my first novel. Head hopping seems to be a major fault of mine and I am hoping I have learnt something over the last few years. As a reading I connect through depth of character. I am also looking into this. An exhausting time.
    Great blog.

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  13. Thanks so much for your comments, Barbara. Yes, can’t we all just get along? Why do humans have to be so cruel to one another and then change the narrative to suit our desires and twist history into something unrecognizable?

    I’m struggling with my novel. I’ve been wearing myself out trying to keep up the pace with a six-days-a-week plan I laid out for myself the first of the month or thereabouts. I set myself up to fail. This week, my plan has fallen apart. I’ve taken two or three days off from my self-imposed ridiculous schedule. I’m reading Seven Things That Steal Your Joy, by Joyce Meyer, and I’m finding it to be very helpful. I tend to make plans and then turn to God when things don’t go well. I’m trying hard now to do what Ms. Meyer says in her book. She says we need to pray first and let God make the plan for us. Otherwise, things just aren’t going to work to our satisfaction. It was like she’d hit me over the head with the book! I desperately needed to read that at this particular time. It’s so hard. I’m a planner. Just ask my sister. She’ll tell you I plan everything to pieces. We’ve always been traveling buddies, but I want to plan what we’re doing, where we’re eating, where we’re staying every minute of the trip. At 68 years old, you’d think I would have learned some things by now.

    My journey as a writer seems to have been turned on its head this month but, if I can just let go and let God, I know in my heart that things will work out. I hope your writing will become clearer to you. The head hopping thing is something I struggle with, too. I’ve read about POV so much in the last couple of weeks, my head is swimming. I still don’t know if I’ve got a grasp of it for my novel. I tried changing all the scenes to the main character’s POV, but some of them take place some distance from where she is. It doesn’t make sense to me to have Oliver come back and tell her what he did, so right now I’m thinking I need to go back and have a couple of chapters in Oliver’s POV. Like you said — this is exhausting!


  14. Henri wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Having lived in Florida, I know you’re well-acquainted with hurricanes. The weather all over the US seems to be on a rampage. Wildfires out West, flooding in the mountains of North Carolina on Tuesday, and a horrible flood (15+ inches of rain in 12 hours) in middle Tennessee overnight Friday night has left unbelievable devastation and loss of life. I heard it rained in Antarctica and yet some people think the climate isn’t changing.

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  15. Yes, it has been terrible all over the world this summer, I just hope winter is not as bad, and as far as climate change deniers, I’ve no more tolerance for fools Janet. We’ve enough with anti-vaccers, anti-maskers and the whole array of idiots polluting this world. I don’t discriminate, but I do against stupid people. I am glad to hear Henri did not cause much troubles in NC. Take good care and I hope you enjoy a lovely week. All the best,

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  16. Francesc, After I sent that last message to you, I remembered the flooding in Belgium and other European countries this summer. It’s happening all over the world. Like you, I’ve just about had it with all the deniers. Many hospitals in the US are filled to overflowing with Covid patients. The anti-vaxxers are taking all the valuable ICU beds which means they aren’t available for the heart attack and other trauma patients that would normally have access to them. I honestly don’t know how the hospital workers are able to keep going day after day when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. We thought this pandemic would have an end, but now it looks like we’ll be dealing with it for the rest of our lives because so many people who had access to the vaccine refused to get it. We’re back to watching church on Facebook instead of being there in person. We went back several Sundays, but then someone in the congregation had Covid and we started learning about more and more people in the congregation who weren’t vaccinated. So we’re staying home again. Schools have started again here in North Carolina — some districts with mask mandates, others with masks optional. I don’t understand how masks can be optional for students who are too young to get the vaccine. What is the matter with people? And here in the US there are too many hard-headed parents who say their children don’t like wearing a mask and the government doesn’t have to right to tell them how to raise their children. Yet, they want the government-supported hospitals to be there when their children get Covid. Many here say wearing a mask should be an individual choice. That’s insane! It’s not an individual choice to obey the speed limit, so how is a mask an individual choice? Sorry for my long rant, but this is a bizarre situation which was preventable. I’m embarrassed by the arrogance of so many Americans who refuse to get the vaccine when there are people in countries all over the world that don’t have the opportunity to get it. I guess I need to trust God to work it all out eventually because there’s nothing I can do to solve the problem. Enjoy your week as summer sadly begins to wind down. Janet

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  17. I can fully understand and I agree with you. This is not a matter of rights. All rights are conditioned to the needs of society, that is part of being civilised. The emergency, unusual, abnormal situation that this pandemic has caused calls for actions to be taken by all. At this moment I do not think it should be a choice, it should be a mandate by all governments that people should be vaccinated and that they should wear masks as required. Already in Italy they have instituted the “green pass” that one must show even to sit and have a beer at a terrace bar and the pass shows that you have had the two jabs, or that you have passed COVID, with a medical certificate or that you have taken, within 48 hours, a PCR test. In Spain we will have that as well, and right now it is a requirement to get on an airplane to travel anywhere. I have my EU COVID passport that I got back in June, 15 days after getting my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It is more than absurd for people to refuse it and it is a matter that concerns us all as these fourth and fifth waves have resulted because of the people resisting vaccination. We are living in the age of idiots, arrogant fools and ignorant sheep that led themselves be fooled into believing faerie tales than scientific fact. They criticise those of us who believe in God, saying that we believe in magic and are superstitious, yet they would rather believe a conspiracy theory or some nut saying that vaccines are untried and that they will disrupt your DNA, than on research scientists that have dedicated their whole life to developing pharmacological agents such as these serums, for the good of the world. It is incredible Janet. A reasonable person cannot wrap their mind around such strange ideas. Anyways, I thank you and I wish you the same, a lovely rest of the summer. All the best,

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  18. I whole-heartedly agree with you. You’ve stated it much better than I could. There are those who say they don’t need to take the vaccine before they trust God to protect them from the virus. My response to them is that God gifted scientists with the ability to develop a vaccine, so why should we not trust God to use the vaccine to protect us? They seem to ignore the verse in the Bible that says we are to love others as we love ourselves. It seems to me that out of a love and respect for the common good, we should all be eager to take the vaccine. Everyone doesn’t see things the way I do… and in many cases I’m sure that’s a good thing. Where would we be now if our parents and grandparents had refused to take all the vaccines that modern science developed in the early and mid-20th century or refused to get us vaccinated? I remember how eager my parents were for us to get the polio vaccine. I had older cousins who had polio. One of the best memes I’ve seen about this topic on Facebook is a child asking his grandmother why he doesn’t have a smallpox vaccination scar. The grandmother’s reply is simple and to the point: Because it worked. Take care, Francesc.

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  19. Definitely and wholeheartedly agree with you Janet! Very well said and so true. Many of us would not be here were it not for vaccines. God illuminates human beings so that they can do His will on Earth. Who are we to question God! All the best to you.

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